HARRISBURG, Pa. – A Roman Catholic high school will shed the name of Washington’s archbishop, who was cited in a sweeping grand jury report as having allowed priests accused of sexually abusing children to be reassigned or reinstated while he was Pittsburgh’s bishop.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh said Wednesday that Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl made the request to remove his name from Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School and that school and diocese officials accepted it.
The sign in front of the suburban Pittsburgh school was discovered vandalized Monday, with red spray paint obscuring Wuerl’s name, as some Catholics called for his resignation or ouster and a petition circulated to remove his name from the school.
The 77-year-old Wuerl has defended himself, saying he acted to protect children, promptly investigate allegations and strengthen policies as understanding of child abuse evolved. He has said he will not resign.
Dropping his name from the school is part of the growing fallout from a grand jury report that accused a succession of church leaders of covering up the abuse of more than 1,000 children or teenagers by about 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania since the 1940s.
The bulk of the cases cited in the report came before the early 2000s, the grand jury said, because most of the internal documents turned over by the dioceses concerned those cases.
The Pittsburgh Diocese, in a statement, cited what it said was Wuerl’s Aug. 16 letter: “In light of the circumstances today and lest we in any way detract from the purpose of Catholic education … I respectfully ask you to remove my name from it. In this way, there should be no distraction from the great success of the school and, most importantly, the reason for the school — the students.”
Wuerl was Pittsburgh’s bishop from 1988 through 2006.
In one case cited in the grand jury report released Aug. 14, Wuerl, acting on a doctor’s recommendation, enabled priest William O’Malley to return to active ministry as a canonical consultant in 1998 despite allegations of abuse lodged against him in the past and his own admission that he was sexually interested in adolescents.
In his appointment letter, Wuerl wrote, “At the same time I welcome you back to priestly ministry following your leave of absence for personal reasons. Your willingness to serve in this capacity and to be of assistance … is a sign of your dedication and priestly zeal,” the grand jury report said.
Years later, according to the report, six more people alleged that they had been sexually assaulted by O’Malley, in some cases after he had been reinstated.
In another case, Wuerl returned a priest to active ministry in 1995 despite having received multiple complaints that the priest, George Zirwas, had molested boys in the late 1980s.
The Pittsburgh Diocese said “today, we would have handled the Zirwas case much differently” and pulled him from ministry, reported an allegation to law enforcement and presented the case to an internal diocese board.
Zirwas, who took at least two leaves of absence for personal reasons and was placed on administrative leave, was found strangled in his home in Cuba in 2001. The principal celebrant at his funeral Mass was Wuerl.
As backlash over the report has grown, the University of Scranton, a Roman Catholic university in Pennsylvania, announced on Monday its plans to remove the names of three bishops named in the report from campus buildings, saying it is acting in solidarity with victims of child sexual abuse.
Two weeks before the report was released, the Harrisburg Diocese said it would hold past church leadership accountable for the sexual abuse of children by priests and strip the names of bishops going back 70 years from church properties.
Meanwhile, the pastor of a southwestern Pennsylvania parish became at least the third Catholic clergy member in the state to be investigated independently of the grand jury report as hundreds of calls pour into dioceses and the state attorney general’s hotline following the report’s release.
The diocese said it removed a monsignor from ministry after it received a credible allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor. The allegation dates back to an incident almost 20 years old and was quickly relayed to authorities, the diocese said. AP